The Cave of Despair

Having experienced the epic climax of his career, the prophet wallowed in despair.  Frustration dogged him like a rabid hound looking for someone to pick a fight with.  One would think Elijah would be happy, feeling at the top of his game, but no. He was depressed and anxious, and he fought demons of suicide.  After defeating four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, he should have felt energized and invincible.  But one word from the king’s wife Jezebel, threatening to kill him for what he had done, and all his hope and joy was lost.   Elijah felt rejection, and it had a profound effect on him.  He wanted to die.

The angel of the Lord came to him and said, “Wake up, get ready, and prepare for a journey.”  God was sending Elijah to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments.   So Elijah made the journey that took him forty days and forty nights.  A musty, old cave became his home while he waited for God to speak.   Suddenly he heard, “What are you doing, Elijah?  What’s going on with you?  Why are you so upset?”

Elijah was incredulous at the question.  “What do you mean, why am I so upset?  I dedicated myself to you, serving you, and speaking to your people, the very ones who have forsaken your covenant.   They killed all of your prophets and now they are trying to kill me.  I’m the only one left.  I am alone, utterly and completely alone.  Isn’t it obvious?”

God’s response?   “Stand on the mountain and wait for me.”  There is much unsaid and much implied in that statement.   God was already speaking to Elijah and yet, instead of continuing the conversation, he tells this man of God to stand on the mountain and wait.  Waiting on God is not an unusual request.  It is often when we are struggling, suffering all alone, that God sees fit to tell us to wait for him.

So he stood at the edge of the cave.  Even though he was wrapped in his outer cloak, he shivered while depression fell upon him like a wet blanket. His mind told him he shouldn’t be so frustrated.  Hadn’t God done amazing things in his life?  What about the miracles he had seen?  He had walked with God and talked to him. Their conversations had been intimate.  No one had a relationship with God like he had, and yet he felt alone.  Sad and melancholy, he stood, crying to his God, “I’m alone.  No one understands me.  I have served you my whole life. Oh, why do I feel this way?”

Suddenly there was a wind and an earthquake. He was sure God was speaking in the earthquake, but there was no word from God when the earth stopped trembling. Then there was a fire. Perhaps God was in the fire, but no. There was no word from God.  He was looking in all the wrong places.

Then in the quiet; in a whisper, God spoke to him. “What are you doing here?” God asked.

“What am I doing here? What? You told me to come, that is why I am here.” He thought those words, but they didn’t come out of his mouth. How does one talk back to God?

“I have spent my whole life serving you.  I have been passionate about you.  I have done everything you have asked of me, and yet, the people don’t care.  They don’t serve you. Even the great miracles you have done have not changed them; I’m all alone.  No one stands with me.  All the prophets are dead.  I’m all alone. People are trying to kill me, and I feel like giving up.  What’s the use of going on?”

Gently, God whispered to Elijah. “You are not alone. There are seven thousand who stand with you. I am with you, and I still have a job for you to do. Don’t give up.”

Elijah found treasure in the cave of despair, a most solitary place, alone, far from any comfort.   God’s response was treasure.  “Go to the wilderness of Damascus.  I have found a man to take your place.”   And his troubles?  Oh, he left them in the cave of despair,

Elisha became his constant companion, following him wherever he went.  As long as Elijah was living on the earth, he was never alone again.  Several years went by, and thoughts of dying were now gone.  As a matter of fact, Elijah never died.  In a whirlwind, God took him up to Heaven in a flaming chariot pulled along by horses of fire.

“And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” And the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.””

1 Kings 19:9-18 ESV

“I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.””

Romans 11:1-4 ESV

Elijah, one of the greatest prophets to have ever lived, suffered from the depression of rejection. He forgot who he was. He forgot the power of his God, and he felt all alone.  Have you ever felt like that?  Do you feel lonely even though you know there are people in your life? Have you felt like giving up, forgetting the miracles and blessings that God has done for you?  If the great prophet Elijah suffered from depression, it is not unusual that the devil would try to afflict us in the same way.

Probably nothing feels worse than the pain of rejection and the feeling of being utterly alone.   Elijah felt like that, even though we know God told him there were seven thousand others like him.  Those feelings bring a dreadful, depressive, despair that eats away at a person until that person doesn’t want to live any longer.  Scientists discovered that physical pain and rejection are processed in the brain the same way.  While testing the reaction of the brain to rejection, they gave people Tylenol before asking them to recall situations where they were rejected.  Those who received the Tylenol had a significant reduction of their emotional pain.*   It is no wonder rejection is one of the most difficult feelings to deal with.

Many Christians suffer from rejection-depression and don’t know it. They plod on day after day, and suddenly the joy of the Lord is gone. Apathetic and weary, they put one foot in front of the other out of habit. They have lost their passion and feel alone. Spiritual depression falls upon them like it did to Elijah. They call out to God, hoping for a sign from heaven. “If only God would speak to me,” they cry. So they look for God’s voice in the thunders and shakings of their emotions. They look in the fires of life.  They search in all the wrong places to hear God’s voice. Is God there? Yes, but he speaks in the whispers.   God’s response is in a quiet place. God is whispering, “come close to me because I am the good shepherd. I will lead you to the still waters and bring you to a place of rest. Come close to me. You are not alone.”

Today, we see political powers shaken to their roots. Natural disasters and riots are happening in many places on earth. Fires are burning, and the sick are dying, while many cry out,” where is God?  Where is he?  I feel all alone, and I need a word from God.  I need it now!  Doesn’t God care?”

Compare Elijah’s cave experience with David.  Running for his life, David hid among the caves, sometimes with others who were also running from King Saul, and sometimes alone.  These things never would have happened if he weren’t a threat to King Saul.  He wouldn’t be a threat if he hadn’t been anointed to be king.  That one prophetic action had set his world on fire, and he had no choice but to go on.  Never retreating, never giving up, David ran and hid, coming out to fight Israel’s enemies while running from the King he called Father.

David was in the middle of the plan of God and yet everything seemed against him.  No matter how hard he tried, no matter how hard he fought for the king, no matter how much he worshiped, he often felt alone and feared the traps in his path.

Psalm 142

“I cry out loudly to GOD,

loudly I plead with GOD for mercy.

I spill out all my complaints before him,

and spell out my troubles in detail:

“As I sink in despair, my spirit ebbing away,

you know how I’m feeling,

Know the danger I’m in,

the traps hidden in my path.

Look right, look left—

there’s not a soul who cares what happens

I’m up against it, with no exit—

bereft, left alone.

I cry out, GOD, call out:

‘You’re my last chance, my only hope for life!’

Oh listen, please listen;

I’ve never been this low.

Rescue me from those who are hunting me down;

I’m no match for them.

Get me out of this dungeon

so I can thank you in public.

Your people will form a circle around me

and you’ll bring me showers of blessing!” The Message Translation

As we look at Psalm 142, we see David crying out to the Lord, feeling hopeless and begging God to help him.  He is hiding in a cave, lonely and suffering.  “Does anyone care?” he asks.   Hunted like an animal and hanging on his one sure thread of hope, he believed God would rescue him.

Can you imagine hiding in a cave?  The caves David lived in were limestone caves that were deep and dark, with some areas so shallow, that sometimes, it was hard even to crawl into, while other areas were cavernous with dangerous drop offs that would catch someone unknowingly to tumble to their death.  The air was often stale and humid, with snakes, bats, and scorpions crawling about.  Caves were like a second home to shepherds.  They often cared for their sheep by a nearby cave, gathering the flock inside to protect them from the cold while the shepherd slept near the entrance lest a hungry fox or lion should wander in and kill his flock.  For David, this was home.  He was weary and filled with despair from running, yet he found treasures in his caves.  They became his secret place.   David wrote several Psalms from caves.

Look at Psalm 57.

Psalm 57

Be good to me, God— and now!

I’ve run to you for dear life.

I’m hiding out under your wings

until the hurricane blows over.

I call out to High God,

the God who holds me together.

He sends orders from heaven and saves me,

he humiliates those who kick me around.

God delivers generous love,

he makes good on his word.

I find myself in a pride of lions

who are wild for a taste of human flesh;

Their teeth are lances and arrows,

their tongues are sharp daggers.

Soar high in the skies, O God!

Cover the whole earth with your glory!

They booby–trapped my path;

I thought I was dead and done for.

They dug a mantrap to catch me,

and fell in headlong themselves.

I’m ready, God, so ready,

ready from head to toe,

Ready to sing, ready to raise a tune:

“Wake up, soul!

Wake up, harp! wake up, lute!

Wake up, you sleepyhead sun!”

I’m thanking you, GOD, out loud in the streets,

singing your praises in town and country.

The deeper your love, the higher it goes;

every cloud is a flag to your faithfulness.

Soar high in the skies, O God!

Cover the whole earth with your glory!

David said he was hiding under God’s wings.  Remember, he was in a lonely, solitary cave, but he knew that there was more to the cave than what he could see with his eyes.  He was hidden in God.   Caves were his secret place.  They were the place he could go to hide in God and look for treasure.  He experienced worship and praise in these dark places.  Love that was deeper and higher than he could express flooded his heart.  The secret place was where he was rejuvenated and strengthened.   He would hunker down and regroup, searching his heart and making sure he was right before God.  Then, in the safety of his cave, he would prepare his next step.  David didn’t focus on his suffering.  He focused on what God could do for him.  Oh yes, there were times when he struggled, but as he worshiped God, his focus changed from his problems to worshiping God.  He found the riches of worship in his suffering and discovered that it was the key to coming out of fear and depression.  He used it often in his life.  It was a treasure that he found in his dark places.

When David needed a place to hide, he ran to his secret place.  It was his habit.  When Absalom stole the kingdom from his father David, he sought advice from Hushai the Arkite about how he should pursue his father.  Hushai responded with, “You know your dad, he’s probably in a cave by now.”

2 Samuel 17;8-9

You know your father and his men, brave and bitterly angry— like a bear robbed of her cubs. And your father is an experienced fighter; you can be sure he won’t be caught napping at a time like this.  Even while we’re talking, he’s probably holed up in some cave or other. Message

A few years ago, I was going through a particularly difficult time and I desperately needed a hiding place, a place where I could be alone with God.  I chose one closet in my house that was set under a staircase.  I pulled out all the coats and jackets that were stored there, and replaced them with a couple of pillows, a small lamp, and my Bible. That became my place to pray and be alone with God.  Just the act of going in and closing the door brought peace to my heart.  That closet was my cave, and while I was there, I went looking for treasure.  I looked for God’s reassurance and his love.  I looked for strength to face my difficulties and peace that would overcome my distress.

Have you suffered rejection?  Are you dealing with the profound feelings of being rejected like Elijah and David?  Have you been rejected by a parent or a child?  Did your best friend walk away from you?   Find a secret place where you can give the Lord your sadness and despair.  Almost anyplace can be your cave if it is where you can be alone with God.  Some people run with headphones on to shut off the sounds of the world, others have a park, a favorite tree to sit under, a closet, attic, or basement.  Ask God to help you.  He will.  And once you have found your hiding place, start digging for treasure.  Stop feeling sorry for yourself and focus on what God has done for you and remind yourself of his promises.  There is a treasure hidden there if you will look.  All you have to do is dig.  And when you find it… go out, live your life and leave your troubles in the cave of despair.

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